PM is currently working on an article about the OST for Flash Gordon, performed and written by Queen. We were put on to Jimmy who, with his band Teeth Of The Sea, has covered the entire soundtrack. Seeing as we’ll only be able to get the odd quote into the main article, it seemed silly to let Jimmy’s exhaustive thoughts on this occasionally-forgotten work go to waste.
What separates the Flash Gordon OST from other film soundtracks and from other Queen albums?
First off, I have to say I agree with what you said below about the links between sci-fi and opera, and I think it stands to reason that you can extend this to the music of Queen as well: Of course, a lot of the more popular contemporary sci-fi cinematic epics, like, say, Star Wars are oft viewed rather sniffily by ‘hard’ sci-fi fans as ‘space operas’, almost as if they’re unworthy of being judged alongside Asimov or Philip K. Dick or what-have-you. That’s a kind of compliment as far as I’m concerned, As much as I love ‘proper’ sci-fi, I have to say my own personal taste tends to veer more towards the realms of high camp and outlandish costume design, so Barbarella and Flash Gordon are always going to win out over Fahrenheit 451 or THX-1138. Similarly, my favourite Queen album is Queen II, which is by far their most ludicrous and operatic, even down to including an overture, not to mention shamelessly vaudevillian fare like Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke.
It was presumably Dino De Laurentis’ decision to get Queen involved: After all, he knew the score, if you will, having previously commisioned Morricone to do the (amazing) music for Danger Diabolik. Apparently Mike Hodges was thinking of getting Pink Floyd to do it, which ended up being a lucky escape for everyone. Conversely, the hiring of Queen was a rare and delightful piece of serendipity for me, as the film and the band make perfect bedfellows in all their respective garish glories. I’m a fan of pretty much all Queen’s stuff apart from the Hot Space and The Miracle albums, but I think Flash Gordon is in my Top Three. It’s a curious paradox that of the most colourful examples of the shamelessly OTT Queen aesthetic comes in the form of something as self-effacing as a mere film score.
What do you make of the use of leitmotif in the soundtrack? Personally I think the subtlety of it wins out – the love theme, for example, is by no means a flute ‘n’ string-led John Williams obvious-athon, and when it returns it’s only slightly tweaked to alter its impact, it’s unsettling rather than romantic or soothing…
I’m not sure if you can use the word ‘subtlety’ to describe the most prominent leitmotiv in the film, which is clearly the Flash! theme itself. Or, indeed, getting Brian May to play the wedding march as an axe-chorale. Part of the success of Queen’s part in the soundtrack is their ability to hammer you over the head with an idea so obvious and stupid that it enters the realm of genius. That said, as you say, the love theme (which has actually remained in the Teeth Of The Sea set beyond the New Years Eve show, for some reason possibly owing to its odd charms) is an example of a deftness of touch which people often forget about in the oeuvre of Queen. Ditto The Kiss, which does wander round the fringes of John Williams territory, but remains odd and disquieting nonetheless, and that’s indeed its saving grace. Although part of the glory of Queen was they were never overly concerned with looking cool or worried about acting ridiculous, this also didn’t mean that they weren’t erudite aesthetes when the time was right.
There’s a balance between orchestral, electronic, and rock musics throughout the OST, but they rarely co-exist. What significance do you think these ‘genres’ (for lack of a better term) have on the soundtrack?
I can do without most of the orchestral score, to be honest. It comes in handy in The Kiss, but one of my biggest soundtrack bugbears tends to be ‘one size fits all’ orchestral scores in the place of any actual interesting or original music, as a kind of default setting for tension, action and intrigue. It’s been a particularly persistent niggle in the 21st century Dr. Who, for example, especially when compared to the otherworldly electronic splendour of the 60s and 70s Who scores. Michael Kamen has got a lot to answer for, which is ironic as I think he collaborated with Queen on the next film score they did, Highlander. The electronic aspect I love, partly because I think it almost works better now than it did then, as the dated synth sounds almost equate to the bacofoil costumes and rickety spaceships of the original Flash Gordon: Deliciously potent retro-futurist chic. The rock, meanwhile, forms a perfect companion piece to the battle scene: Brian May’s unquenchable love of a good riff coupled with a gloriously ‘Boys-Own’ spectacle of cartoon violence.
Finally, do you have any general comments on the purely musical aspects of the record? Any points you think are particularly interesting?
The use of synths is a curious one for other reasons as well, as Queen, up until their The Game album of the same year, had been one of those stridently luddite bands who had ‘No synthesizers!’ on their album sleeves, almost as if the use of too much modern technology amounted to cheating. Also, although the album really belongs to Brian May, it’s a classic example of why Queen are so much more than the sum of their parts: Freddie’s love for high drama gave us the Ming theme and the fight-scene piece de reistance Football Fight, Roger’s love of uncomplicated tub-thumping gave us both the proto-Boredoms stomp of the Love Theme and the sinister Escape From The Swamp. And, presumably, John Deacon hung around in the background keeping everyone’s more wayward ideas in check. After all, it’s worth noting that recent abominations like We Will Rock You, which exemplifies what can happen when Queen’s overarching showbiz tartiness and OTT demeanour go horribly wrong, and the laughable-or-just-plain-tragic album with Paul Rodgers, were entirely devoid of Deacon influence.
You can listen to the excellent Teeth Of The Sea at this clicking point where you click.